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New Zealand Parties Hear Voters' Call for Change

IN last month's cliffhanger election, New Zealand voters sent the two major parties the same message, loud and clear: It's time for change. Both parties have responded by replacing their top people.

Prime Minister Jim Bolger, who retained power by only one seat in parliament, appeared to be trying to soften the National Party's image by dumping his unpopular finance minister, Ruth Richardson, on Nov. 21.

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Ms. Richardson was the architect of social policy reforms that many found harsh during the country's prolonged recession. She was replaced by Mr. Bolger's long-time friend and colleague, Bill Birch, a traditional conservative who is expected neither to press for further reforms nor reverse previous changes.

Labour has heard the message, too, responding with exactly the opposite solution. The party has toughened its leadership image by replacing warm-and-fuzzy leader Mike Moore with his deputy, Helen Clark. Mr. Moore was considered enthusiastic, if inarticulate. Ms. Clark, a former lecturer in political science, is described as hard-edged and cerebral.

Clark engaged in a short, but aggressive, campaign to wrest the leadership from Moore.

She is said to want to return the party to its traditional Labour roots, which it lost in 1984 when it abruptly turned right-wing and instituted a massive overhaul of the economy.

The loss of Labour votes in this election to the Alliance, a new left-leaning coalition, indicated the country's growing impatience with radical economic reform and voters' readiness to return to traditional policies.

The sacking of the first top woman in government and the rise of the first woman head of a party is perplexing to analysts in this year of the centennial of women's suffrage.

``National wants to soften its image, so it dumps a woman. Labour wants to sharpen its image, so they elevate a woman,'' says Margaret Clark, a professor of political science at Victoria University at Wellington, and no relation to Helen Clark.

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Business leaders say they are sorry to lose the consistency and continuity of Richardson's policy. ``The main concern for business now is that the government will maintain the same economic course and in particular refrain from any loosening of spending policy,'' says Michael Barnett, chief executive of the Auckland Regional Chamber of Commerce and Industry.

``We now have four backward-looking political parties,'' says Professor Clark. ``They're all antireform, and they're paralyzed. The paralysis is likely to continue indefinitely.''

The next election, some time in the next five years, will be conducted under a new system for selecting proportional representation. Professor Clark estimates six or eight parties will field candidates. ``The likelihood of ever having a single-party government is remote.''

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